Bring back Artest! Now!
There's only one way to make the Pacers-Pistons series competitive: Reinstate Ron.
AUBURN HILLS, MICH. Plenty of times when I was a bad boy, Momma returned my Nintendo joysticks after two weeks instead of three. Sometimes it was in her best interest.
Likewise, Ron Artest should be playing in these playoffs. They need him.
Jermaine O'Neal decked a fan who had come onto the court at the Palace of Auburn Hills during the infamous Nov. 19 brawl and NBA commissioner David Stern hit him with a 25-game suspension (an arbitrator later reduced it to 15). Stephen Jackson followed Artest into the stands and threw a series of violent punches toward Detroit Pistons fans, so Stern tossed him for 30 games. Ben Wallace, whose shove of Artest in response to his hard foul set off the chain of events, got six.
Point is, they're all playing.
So let's ask ourselves: Why isn't Artest?
Stern slammed Artest with an unprecedented season-long suspension for venturing into the stands to confront a fan he thought threw a cup of beer at him. At the time, the penalty seemed extreme at least, to me it did but a harsh penalty was justifiable in the immediate aftermath of one of the lowest moments in the league's history.
But then Stern had to go and hang on the rim, so to speak. He lived up his surname and denied the Indiana Pacers' requests that Artest be reinstated for the playoffs.
Stern dropped the basketball on that one.
And I, for one, think it's foul. Because based on Game 1, the Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Pacers and Pistons is shaping up to be a stinker. Detroit won the first game 96-81 and it wasn't that close. The gap in talent between the teams appears to be just too wide.
Stern can still do something to close it. Artest's suspension cost him 73 regular-season games (and with them, $5 million of his salary). The Pacers' opening-round series with the Celtics went seven games. After Wednesday night's Game 2 of the Pacers-Pistons, Artest will have missed 82 games.
The tally is both significant and sufficient. It might not be the season, but it amounts to a full NBA season. It's punishment aplenty. Stern should let Artest make his playoff debut at home Friday night.
Let the bad boy back in for the good of the game.
There are many who feel the NBA and sports in general don't need players like Artest. Some believe Artest should have been banned from basketball for life for endangering the lives of everyone at the Palace that night. While what he did certainly was inexcusable, it isn't unforgivable. He has served his time. Sitting out the rest of the Pacers' season, however brief, doesn't serve him. Chances are he won't experience many more, if any, moments of clarity between now and next season, when he's due to be reinstated. If Artest were ever going to learn a lesson, he'd have learned it by now.
So Stern should bring him back. Now.
At this point, Artest's absence is punishing the fans. This series is lacking without him. Pacers-Pistons is the best rivalry in the East, maybe in the entire league, and the latest chapter is being written without one of the lead characters. Imagine Celtics-Pistons without Bill Laimbeer or Bulls-Pistons without Rick Mahorn or Dennis Rodman. Hard to, isn't it?
Granted even with Artest, the Pacers, who lost to Detroit in the Eastern finals last year, would have a difficult time keeping up with the defending champs. But adding an All-Star would at least make the series more competitive. Artest is that, if anything. The Pacers clearly miss his intensity, not to mention his immense skill. He's another scoring option in the post and a natural ball handler at the three position. He's arguably the best defender in basketball, and he can permit the Pacers the kind of flexibility that could make the difference in this series -- he would guard Tayshaun Prince, allowing Stephen Jackson to take Richard Hamilton, who is a very difficult matchup for Reggie Miller. In a given game, he's capable of being the Pacers' best offensive player, best defensive player or both. He dominates in the half court at both ends.
On top of that, he's just fun to watch.
The league's current bad boy, its Rodman reincarnated, should be playing in the Bad Boys' old building. The NBA needs him on the court right now, not profiled in Gentlemen's Quarterly.
Apparently, I'm not alone in my feelings. Now, I purposely didn't ask any Pacers about Artest because, as Rick Carlisle told ESPN's Dan Patrick on his radio show Monday, whether Artest should play in the playoffs is, at this point, "a moot point." He's not coming back. But I asked a couple of Pistons how they'd react if Stern were to come to his senses and reinstate a star onto the league's biggest stage, the playoffs. As expected, the Pistons said they wouldn't be upset. There's just something less satisfying about defeating a wounded enemy. Call it the gladiator mentality.
"I would have no problem with it all," Detroit point guard Chauncey Billups said. "If David Stern thought we were going to play them, he probably would have let him play in the playoffs. I don't know. He should have been playing in the playoffs, anyway. Us or not.
"I never like to play a team when they've got guys hurt because I never like to hear excuses. We heard it last year with this team and with New Jersey. You want to play a team at full strength because you want to beat the best that they've got out there."
Added Lindsey Hunter, "Of course you would want them to be full strength. From our aspect of it, it's an unfortunate thing to have happen because he's one of their best players, and of course it's going to hurt them, but people are going to say, 'Without Ron, this, that and the other.' You always want to see a team at full strength. Any competitor, any player in this league will tell you that."
When it comes to personnel, coaches, on the other hand, can't afford to think in the hypothetical, nor do they practice speaking in it. So when asked whether the competitor in him wished Artest were playing, Larry Brown answered, "I don't think of it that way. I just admire what they've done. I'm happy that they're relatively healthy and that we are as well. We beat them last year. That's over. They were at full strength last year. I called Pop [Spurs coach Gregg Popovich] this morning; he wasn't saying how he felt sorry for Seattle not having [Vladimir] Radmanovic and Ray Allen, he's just getting ready for Game 2. You get ready for whoever they put out there and try to win."
Brown has been talking for the past six months about everyone's learning from Nov. 19 and putting it behind us. He has to know that until Artest comes back, The Brawl still will be a story. From that standpoint, Stern's keeping Artest out until next year makes little sense, sort of like piling up dirty clothes in the corner of your bedroom eventually, someone is going to have to do the laundry.
Bringing Artest back for the remainder of the playoffs would (once the circus ends, that is) bring closure to The Brawl. Otherwise, one of the first things people, especially within the media, are going to look for when the 2005-06 schedule comes out is Artest and the Pacers' first date with the Pistons, their first visit to the Palace, and so on.
It goes away only after Artest returns.
One final plea to Stern: Consider lifting Artest's suspension after Game 2. Let Ron come out and play. Don't tell me it's unrealistic. The sentence was "unanimous, 1-0," so it shouldn't be too difficult to overturn. It wouldn't be unfair, even now. At least, not as unfair as the Pistons' playing a shorthanded Pacers team. I'd bet Artest is in great shape, too. The Pacers obviously could use him.
If the late, great attorney Johnnie Cochran were standing before Stern, he might conclude his argument this way:
It's still not too late to reinstate. Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.